Author’s Note: There is so much to say about this race, but what follows isn’t exactly a race report in terms of explaining the course or its amenities. What follows is more of an essay about the race experience. If you want to quick race recap, here it is—I highly recommend Utah Valley for its small race field and beautiful setting including: green mountain pastures with horse and cattle farms, amazing views of snow-capped peaks, running along a river, and finishing in the charming college town of Provo. The expo is well stocked with vendors and yet still small enough so it is easy to navigate. The race day directions from organizers were straightforward and the aid stations on course were well-stocked and manned by helpful folks. Know that the course is fast because it is mostly all downhill. If you train for a downhill race and give yourself more than half-a-day at altitude in Provo, you will have a great race. If you fly in the day before from 2,000 feet and try to make it an in and out ordeal, you might experience what I did. Read on…
Even in the moment I knew there was nothing to be this dramatic about. I was running on two legs, on a beautiful course through Provo Canyon on a beautiful morning.
My bigger self, the self that understands context and perspective, knew that this was only a hiccup. A blip on the radar. But my smaller self, the self that had spent months training hard and felt like she had been cheated by the universe, started to hate on every possible thing that could have kept her from her goal. If someone had passed me during the final few miles they might have wondered if I had injured myself, or perhaps been shot, because I was periodically sobbing as I ran.
I was below pace for the first 10K, on pace for the second 10K, then over by two seconds per mile on the third 10K. The problem is, there are four 10K legs in a marathon, plus another two miles. And during that fourth 10K, that was where things got tough.
I had traveled to Provo the day before the Utah Valley Marathon, flying in to Salt Lake from L.A. and renting a car for the hour drive south. Race prep included picking up take out from Noodles and Company as part of my shake out run, watching a couple Modern Family episodes and a 7p.m. bedtime before waking up at 2:15a.m. to catch the shuttle to the start. At the end of the race I had to get back to the hotel to shower, grab food, head back to the airport and fly home.
This was not the original plan. That plan had originally been to take a leisurely two-day drive with my family, stop and see a few national parks in Utah, and turn my race into a single stop on the family vacation. Instead, with my husband’s work and other commitments, the race turned into a business trip of sorts.
This new plan really started to bother me around mile 18 when I started to get tight. The road had a slant to it and I realized I was running uneven for a large portion of the race. This realization inspired me to start punching my hip socket, as if made up mixed martial arts moves applied mid-stride would have any effect on my leg mobility. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t.
In reality the new plan had bothered me all along, but in the moment of discomfort and fear that the race wasn’t going the way I planned expected, I started to really dislike that new plan and everything that I felt caused it—Life as a military spouse on the move, as a mom of young kids, as a stay-at-home parent. The smaller self resented all those things pretty heavily around miles 18-23.
By the late teens I was struggling to hold an 8:14 average, as seen on my watch that had somehow re-set before the race to measure only six mile splits, for a reason that remains a mystery to me. This turned out to be helpful because I am a watch fiend and will check it repeatedly every single mile to make sure I am on pace. I had jumped in with the 3:35 pace group specifically to give myself a break from the watch. I chatted up Steven, my group pacer, in the first few miles until he realized we were going a little too fast. That was easy to do on the solid downhill grade from start to finish, which dropped us from 6,200 feet to 4,500 feet over 26 miles. I joked before the race when studying the course map that the last time I lost that much elevation during a race in Utah I was on a pair of skis in college.
In retrospect, had I known that pacers would put a little time in the bank, I would have jumped in with the 3:40 pacer, even more conservative than my goal pace, and then left him in the dust at the second half. Not like I have ever been able to do that before, but hey, there’s a first for everything. Instead at mile 21, with Steven the pacer now out of view after I trailed him for a few miles, the 3:40 pacer passed me. I told him by way of yelling at him—or at least toward him—that was not okay. He tried to make me feel better by telling me he was more than a minute and-a-half faster than his pace. He told me to hang on with him until 24, when he would drop back to adjust to his finish pace. I agreed then watched him run off, unable to keep up the pace.
At mile 22, I thanked a volunteer as I accepted a cherry flavor Otter Pop from her at an aid station. I threw it down in disgust, half-eaten, around a mile later. Thankfully my bigger self made sure no one was standing nearby so they didn’t get hit by frozen debris. The bigger self also made sure to cheer on those passing me and those I passed, excited about the coming finish line and the great accomplishment. But the smaller self continued to whine, to feel like there was no way this result could have been the outcome. Even in the moment I could see how much of a baby I was being, but I couldn’t quite shake the urge to act like one.
I did not believe that 3:35 was aggressive. Based on my training times, based on my track splits, based on my mileage, I felt as if 3:35 was smart, especially based on what I had done in the past. But, I had not run anything under the 3:40s since my PR in Boston in 2011. Since then I have had two kids, two major moves with the military, a couple of different jobs, and a few different running tribes.
We currently live in the middle of the Mojave Desert, with heat most of the year (“Don’t worry, it’s a DRY heat”), a little elevation, at times windstorms, and a high chance of me complaining. I decided early that this training cycle had to end before the heat was too bad. My final 20 and 22 milers were in 70-80 degree weather, which proved helpful for a June race, but it still meant some slower paces for my longest runs. There were a lot of lonely long runs, where I was out of sync with a lot of my running tribe in Twentynine Palms. My bigger self thought about how grateful I was for them, wishing any one of them were running with me for the final stretch. This was the first race I ran entirely alone, with no friends at the start or finish, no family to greet me at the bag claim or cheer me along the course.
Once I knew my original goal of a 3:35, then my secondary goal of a time under 3:40 (my current Boston Marathon qualifying time) were both past, my bigger self stepped up to remind me that I was finishing another marathon. My twentieth marathon, in my eighth state, my fifth marathon since becoming a mom. I was blessed to be doing what I loved. My bigger self wasn’t serving up a platitude, it was a wake up call.
It wasn’t that I suddenly felt good about the race. It still hurt thinking about how hard I worked, how prepared I felt, to have actually felt like I had held back at the start, only to be behind my goal at the end. That hasn’t happened all that often since I have started running marathons.
I realized though, during the stiff drive back to Salt Lake (after a shower and a burger, of course), and the commuter flight back to LA, where I then stayed overnight, that I need to lose sometimes.
The best way I can explain it is that I realized there is in the moment and there is in the lifetime. In the moment belongs to the smaller self, it’s the knee-jerk reaction, the sudden outburst and frustration. I thought about how ridiculous I might have looked to someone watching me run past in the final miles. I’m grateful there were no photographers, or at least they spared me by not sending me photos of my emotional deterioration. In fact the race photos show how much fun I was actually having, they were some of the best I have ever had taken of me (and they were free—kudos Utah Valley for that).
In the lifetime is where my bigger self—the better and more permanent self, the self that recognizes the work as a whole and not just a means to an end—lives. I realized that over the course of my lifetime, even over the course of my running career that is going on 14 years now, this race was still very much a win. A beautiful course, wonderful company, good challenges, and a big lesson in falling short of a goal. In the lifetime is where I need to be to teach my kids about patience and gratitude and humility and true strength. I am not entirely sure I would have thought of that before becoming a parent.
During the hardest parts of the race, my mom voice kicked in and as I periodically let out a sob and I realized that if I wasn’t going to have fun, I had to stop. And I didn’t want to stop. Technically, I couldn’t stop, I had a plane to catch. Like my son playing with his Legos and pitching a fit because something isn’t fitting together right, I had to tell myself that just because the race wasn’t working didn’t mean that it was a total loss. If I wanted to keep going, for this race and others, I needed to remember that I run marathons because I love the people, the courses, the accomplishments, and the camaraderie with all the other weirdos who love marathons.
Back in L.A., I talked for a long time with a great friend over a large post-race dinner—a rich soul food feast of fried chicken, black eyed peas, green beans, and mac and cheese.
We talked about our old days racing on a team with faster runners. We talked about our coaching and our free time outside of work, which was ample in those days before kids. Then we talked about our kids and all of the wonderful things they bring that we wouldn’t give back for anything. The resentment of the later miles, which had melted away as the day wore on (again, burger and fries definitely assisted), lifted off my shoulders.
We talked until I could feel myself falling asleep in my glass of sweet tea. I headed to the guest room where she had lovingly prepared a a big, comfortable bed for me to crash in before I drove back to Twentynine Palms the next day.
My bigger self had resumed as head of operations—leaving the smaller self packed away in the hotel laundry bag holding my dirty race kit—and took the reigns again as I settled into the clean sheets and fell fast asleep.